Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I'm an American citizen who reads about issues and votes in municipal elections, but I'm a little bit flummoxed as to the method by which we select the next President of our nation, a method we have all come to accept.

1) Why don't we all go to primaries on the same day? The piecemeal mishmash of primaries and caucuses favors voters who happen to live in certain states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina) and punishes voters who happen to live in other states (Montana, Oregon and North Carolina, for example). If the influence the press has on the outcome of an election is important enough to avoid declaring a winner before polls close on a particular election day, why is it okay to declare a winner in a party's presidential nomination before millions of voters in other states have had their say?

2) What the hell is the point of non-binding caucus? Much like a congressional non-binding resolution ordering the President to remove troops from Iraq, why should anyone care what anything non-binding has to say about who should be our next President...ial nominee?

3) Why do so many caucuses involve several layers of needless representation? For instance in Iowa precinct delegates are selected based proportionally on the votes from individuals in that precinct, and those delegates go to county conventions, where they select delegates to go to district conventions, who then select delegates to go to the state convention, who aren't actually bound by anything that the precincts say. What if all the state convention delegates just happened to drink Ron Paul's kool-aid?

4) Why are Iowa and New Hampshire allowed to go first, but states like Michigan and Florida get punished if they try to horn in on those northern white-bread states? Are those two states ordained by God to be the sole defenders of democracy?

5) Why don't we care at all how many actual delegates are bound by these primaries? According to, New Hampshire's democrats will send 9 delegates for Obama, 9 delegates for Clinton, 4 delegates for Edwards, and reserve 5 delegates for later. So in this Shocking Victory for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, in terms of the only metrics that actually matter, she only tied Obama.

6) Super-delegates: kind of suspicious, no? About 20% of the vote at the Democratic convention will be from super-delegates who don't have to vote in any particular way. So if the number of delegates for Obama and Clinton, say, obtained before the convention are pretty close, these super-delegates, who do not represent the will of the people and could very well represent the will of special interests, could collaborate and select whichever candidate they feel would be most friendly to, say, seal-clubbing. Why do we allow this?

7) Why aren't convention delegates bound by law or party registration or something to select who the voters voted for?

And this list is just for the primaries. The general election has its own anti-democratic process, but it's constitutionally ordained and way less shadowy than the ways in which the political parties go about their business.


Jacob said...

Are all your "why" questions rhetorical? I mean, do you want the historical evolution of the process that explains how we got these absurdities (I'd love to write one up!), or are you asking why we put up with the absurdities today?

Also, you vote in municipal elections? Have you voted for your town coroner yet? I miss voting for that guy. And the the district judge magistrate in Carlisle who won by one vote.

Steve said...

I would love to hear some historical evolution. I honestly don't know how we got to this state of being, since the first primary I actually followed closely involved a man who looks like Grover from Sesame Street screaming on a stage in New Hampshire.

I don't think Norman has a town coroner. To speak non-metaphysically, I wonder where we go when we die?

Jacob said...

I'm doing this off the top of my head with my swiss cheese memory, so feel free to check it against Wikipedia...

Party conventions have been around since the 19th century, but they were as much about deciding on a platform as much as a candidate (this is reflected today in that if you caucused last week in Iowa you stayed around afterwards to vote on suggested platform positions after picking candidates).

Nominees were of course picked by smoke-filled rooms (kind of...more on this later) until the mid-twentieth century (the same ones that pick the March Madness field). These rooms included some official party leaders, but they also included unoffocial party leaders (guys who've been around forever or just gained particular influence) as well as unelected men of influence. Sometimes voting at the conventions led to potential nominees, and the smoke-filled rooms just had a sort of implicit veto. There are some pluses and minuses for these rooms.

They decided things relatively quickly. They were decided by men who were at least knowledgeable and experienced when it came to politics. These men were also good at brokering deals and a particular candidate for movement in the party platform and the like.

Obviously, the smoke-filled rooms were undemocratic. They were not idealist in any sense of the word, and they rarely pushed the envelope. They were also smoke-filled, and thus opaque. We started some real smoke-filled room reform in the twentieth century.

Primaries were supposed to mimic the presidential election. They came about at a time when our country was still much more state-oriented. Election rules were state-specific, as were elections issues. So there was no call for uniformity in the primaries. This leads to primaries with different rules, and on different days, and the presence of caucuses, and the differing distribution of delegates and superdelegates.

I don't recall how New Hampshire and Iowa got to be first. I know that NH current has the primacy of its primary written into its constitution, but you obviously can't enforce a state constitution on another state. If New York were to jump the gun, I don't know who a New Hampshire citizen will sue (maybe the NH Secretary of State, for not moving it early enough?). As far as why we can't change things, well, the parties are scared. It's one of those things that have to be fixed AFTER one is already elected (and the current President, to his credit, spoke about this early on in his administration, but has since dropped it).

Why caucuses instead of primaries? Well, a caucus mimicks the original conventions and smoke-filled rooms instead of mimicking the general election. Why superdelegates? They're a remnant of the old party leaders and party elders from the smoke-filled rooms who still want their say. And they do reflect the will of the people at least somewhat, as they were elected for other offices (usually).

Why are delegates not actually distributed by caucus results? Well, the flexibility is a remnant of the old convention/smoke-filled room system in the ability to trade and curry favor. The tiered system also reflects the electoral college, which wasn't as bound by the popular vote as it is today. But it's certainly useful today, because these days it's not at all about how many delegates you have, but about who the media have convinced the people is winning. I guess the pundits call this "momentum." If Obama and Clinton both sold all their delegates so far to Bill Richardson for a nickel, it wouldn't matter, because they're still the big winners. Wins in later primaries simply depend more on earlier media coverage than earlier accumulation of actual delegates.

Of course, the early primaries didn't always have as much influence on later primaries. The long-drawn out process saw tons of candidates jumping in late or leaving early before getting back in. There was a lot of wiggle room before we eventually settled on a nominee. It's probably more the vast media exposure early states get these days that makes them seem more important. Constantly moving up the primary calendard also fucks things up, too. This is why the February 5th states are stupid. They all moved that early because they knew that being early gave them more influence, but now that they're all on the same day it dilutes their individual worth and gives even greater importance to NH et al.

Anyway, that's probably not at all as useful as I originally intended it to be, but I've got work to get back to. If you're actually interested in the primary process, rent Tanner '88. It's a great miniseries that followed a fictional candidate in the 1988 primary (interacting with real candidates and responding to real storylines).

Steve said...

Why do caucuses still have this vestigial party platform business? Every candidate has a platform that is non-negotiable, and it is understood that if Huckabee wins the nomination, the party platform will be different than if Ron Paul wins the nomination (ha!). So where does the precinct party platform go? Is there an official who has the job of reading the precinct platforms and then throwing them in the trash?

Jacob said...

I think there's a chance some aspects of the party platform are still negotiable. Senator McCain is pro-life, but not as outspoken about it as some of his fellow candidates. Former Senator Thompson could theoretically offer his delegates to McCain if he beefed up the pro-life parts of his platform. But that's not really negotiating with the precincts, no.

I think the precincts don't establish their own fleshed-out narrative style platform as much as they compose a list of bullet points. I assume these then submitted up to the state caucus (or whatever), which votes on all the submitted bullet points (like a legislator voting on bills coming out of committees). I don't know how where the platform goes after the state level, though. Maybe they're all just sent in as suggestions to some party officials or the nominee. I'm not even sure "the platform" is, like, a real written-down thing anymore. I heard someone say back in 2004 that he read the GOP platform on its website, but I don't know, really.

Actually, I bet aspects of the platform really are discussed and debated and maybe even voted on somewhere at political conventions. Like, we only see the speeches at night, but there has to be other stuff going on during the day, right? And in other rooms of the convention hall? Maybe smoke-filled rooms still exist in some form.

I think a platform's just another one of those things that mattered a long time ago when parties were a little less monolithic in their values and actually changed their stances with some frequency.

Steve said...

I figured the rest of the days at political conventions were just filled with giant cocktail mixers with appetizers catered by T.G.I. Fridays. But perhaps there is activity centered inside smaller meeting rooms with delegates hashing out recommendations for the finer points of corporate tax policy or industrial regulations or types of sandwiches for lunch. But with all the municipal fire and health regulations in just about any American city nowadays, I'll bet you that those rooms are filled not with the smoke from cigars but with the smoke from the delegates own burning sense of self importance.

But in all seriousness, candidates generally have about a billion bullet items in their own platforms, and it is frowned upon to change or compromise the issues in the middle of a campaign since the other side will always accuse the compromiser of being a flip-flopper. Only after one is elected does one silently cave to special interests.

So given that almost all issues that could possibly be on a party's platform have been covered by an individual candidate's platform with a clear position staked out, your only choice as a candidate is to, as you put it, beef up that position or tone it down based on what your party tells you to do. I guess that means more or fewer talking points in stump speeches about the particular issue, or the candidate could stop talking about something altogether and hope people just don't pay attention. But the problem is that no matter how often or how infrequently John McCain talks about abortion, hes still got an official policy agenda that one would assume he's going to try to pass once he's in office, whether or not he talks about it constantly or not at all.

John McCain states it explicitly on his website that "John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench." That's not very vague or ambiguous. Why would D.A. Arthur Branch require John McCain to talk about the sanctity of life more in order for Branch to give him his 2 or 3 delegates? They already share this position, and one assumes that anything that goes on a candidates platform is going to be pushed forward. But maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on potential action and not enough on public perception.